It was hard not to feel a pang upon learning that Germany and Austria would take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, in addition to the tens of thousands they have already welcomed. While our prime minister says there’s no “demographic depth” that would allow even a symbolic humanitarian step, it seems others have learned the lesson from World War II – especially those who were so concerned about demographics at the time.
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Netanyahu can always be expected to choose inaction over action, and his refusal to take in refugees is not surprising.
What’s strange is the silence of the rabbis and leaders of the religious world. Strange, because Jewish tradition clearly speaks of sheltering and aiding refugees. It does so not only in the repeated reminders that “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” and, therefore, the Israeli people are forever duty-bound to take care of foreigners, but also in explicit commandments.
The Torah says, “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best” (Deuteronomy, 23:16-17).
The Torah stresses repeatedly the slave’s freedom to settle wherever he chooses, and biblical commentators link these verses to the preceding ones dealing with war. They conclude that it’s a commandment, a virtue, to take in refugees as well.
Maimonides says the commandment “contains a great utility – namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled” (“Guide to the Perplexed,” 3, 39). He understands the commandment regarding the slaves as the minimal duty, and it is certainly our duty to help those who aren't slaves but are fleeing danger.
And that’s not all. The prophet Isaiah implores the Moabites to adopt this virtue of taking in refugees: “Let mine outcasts dwell with thee; as for Moab, be thou a covert to him from the face of the spoiler” (Isaiah 16:4).
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, explained, “When the time of Moab’s destruction came, Isaiah describes the reason for the holocaust. All the nations dwelling on Moab’s border used to cry out over the Moabites’ iniquities there’s only one way to overcome the hardship – Moab must return to ways of mercy and when he still stands at the peak of his power and his light shines like noon, he will treat wretched refugees with compassion.”
Where are all those concerned for Israel’s Jewish character? Why don’t they cry out when Israel undermines Jewish tradition like this? Where are they hiding, these deeply religious people who speak so loftily of “Jewish morals” and seeking to strengthen “Jewish identity?” How come their voice isn’t heard loud and clear, crying over our mother Rachel’s sons who are denying their ancestors’ legacy?
I am not naive. It’s clear to me that, like all of us, those who see themselves as loyal to tradition choose which parts of it to observe. That’s fine; we all do that. But it’s important to raise two points.
First, they should understand that their commitment to tradition has clear boundaries – in other words, they choose how to express their Jewishness.
This recognition is important not only because it makes clear that anyone who cites halakha (Jewish religious law) to justify his objection to equal rights for Arabs, gays or women is simply using halakha, not obeying it. Anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein attributes to Maimonides his view that churches must be burned down, but of course we won’t hear a word from him about Maimonides’ command to take in refugees.
The second point is also associated with commitment – not to halakha, but to moral decisions. Because the interesting thing with such decisions is that they require us to make an effort.
Morality is linked to our relations with the other, and the other usually challenges us, doesn’t give us a free aromatic massage.
Pay attention to which halakhic choices challenge us, take us out of our comfort zone and require us to make an effort, and which choices flatter us, gratify our worldview and give us that indulging massage.
It’s very easy to tell ourselves we’re a chosen people, and therefore we’re allowed to discriminate against others. We need voices calling on Jews to take responsibility, to give of themselves, to do the difficult, inconvenient thing.
The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, and a teacher in the department of comparative religion at Tel Aviv University.